davidhobbysm

Extreme Photography: First Frame

When high school guys have a little too much courage (or booze) in their system, they sometimes hit the road for a game of “chicken.” In the game (primarily designed to thin the herd of the stupid young males before they get to breed) two people drive right at each other in cars, until one blinks and swerves out of the way first.

This person is the loser of the game.

Get a little more age and enough alcohol involved — and a handgun — and you may end up with a game of Russian Roulette, which is an even faster ticket to a finalist slot in the Darwin Awards.

As a young sports photographer 20 some-odd years ago, our professional equivalent was a little game we liked to call “First Frame.” I was introduced to it by my friend Rich Riggins, who was a ridiculously good sports shooter at a very young age.

The rules were simple: Two competing photographers shooting the same game shot the first frame of a 36-exposure roll of Tri-X at each other, thus verifying that no rolls of film were switched later. The very next frame was your entry in the game. Whoever had the best action shot (moment, composition, focus, etc.) won.

Mind you, this was in the days of film and manual focus cameras. We didn’t have 11FPS auto-focus digital Uzis with 4000-shot clips. And yes, we walked to school, five miles, uphill both ways — in the snow. Barefoot.

Essentially, it was a game of chicken. You never knew (a) what the sporting event was going to hand you as a possibility, and (b) whether you were gonna nail it on the first frame. But we were shooting high school sports for the most part, so we could afford to take a risk or two. The upshot was, it taught you to see better — to conserve your frames and become more of a thinking, proactive photographer.

The Mac-Daddy walk-off homer equivalent would be to carefully watch the game, shoot one frame, and turn in that photo. Gutsy, but unlike roulette, at least you lived to fight another day.

Comparatively speaking, I was a chicken. Some wire photogs would sit down at a basketball game, shoot a reference shot of each other, wait, shoot one frame and head into the darkroom to transmit.

The wire photo editors must have thought they were shooting drunk if the shooter didn’t nail it. At least there was always the second quarter to get your butt back out to the baseline for some redemption.

I always loved the game because it taught you to pre-think something as reactionary as shooting sports. Which, of course, is the secret to getting better sports photos. The better you were at predicting what was gonna happen next — and where — the better your sports photos were.

Fast forward about 15 years later and I’m shooting for The Baltimore Sun. It’s an MLB night — Seattle Mariners at the Orioles. It’s past the all-star break, which means the Orioles are no longer in the hunt. But you cover the games anyway.

Shooting Orioles means sitting in the pits just past the home team dugout on the first base line. Kinda hard to ever pay for a seat in the bleachers after that.

It means listening to Reuters shooter Joe Giza deliver a steady stream of complaints on what, exactly, is wrong with the world today. Next would come the singing.

“Nooooo-booooody knoooows….. the trouble I seeeeennnn…” he would start up. (Dear lord, take me now. Please let me die of a sharply hit foul ball to the head. Or at least a deafening shot to the ears. Right now. Or better yet, take Joe instead.)

Mind you, Joe also knows every little detail about the game — the league standings, the stats for today’s lineup, what the coach had for breakfast, and where the next ball is going to be hit. So you have to concentrate or he will embarrass you in the darkroom later with his photos. He knows baseball.

But that night, I wanted to try something at the very beginning of the game, a little personal game of First Frame. I am certainly not challenging Giza, ’cause he would kick my aperture, if you know what I mean.

Leading off for the Mariners, as always, would be Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro has two speeds — faster and gone. He bats lefty, which puts him two steps closer to first base. His stance is open — closer still to first. And he takes a big step out of the box towards first when he swings. You get the idea.

When shooting baseball it is all about what is the most important thing that can happen next. Man on third? Cover home. Right handed batter? Pre-focus on shortstop. Man on first? Get to where second base is not blocked by the first base coach for a double play sequence. Shooting with Giza? Bring ear plugs.

Okay, I made the last one up. But the point is, you prep for the next meaningful thing that could happen. And on the first pitch of the game, there ain;t a lot you have to be ready for. If Ichiro cranks a homer (not likely) I have at least two seconds to prepare to get him crossing the plate and scoring. (Did I mention he is fast?)

So I decided to pan him on the way to first. Shutter priority, 1/30th or 1/45th (can’t remember) and swap to the 80-200. Sure enough, he cracks a hard line drive to short, and he is out of the box before the ball finishes making contact with the bat.

He comes by me doing about 72MPH, still in the acceleration portion of today’s performance. Sure enough, Ichiro beats the throw to first. One day, he will hit a screaming line drive up the middle and the ball will hit him in the head as he rounds second. Just a matter of time.

suzukism

So, I shoot as he runs by, and make one of my very favorite frames I ever shot while covering MLB. In my mind I think, “Ha! Take that, Giza!”

Only (a) he didn’t know we were playing first frame, and (b) he kicked my butt with the rest of the game’s coverage. As usual.

I love the photo, tho. But what pisses me off is that it never ran. At The Sun, we cover the Orioles, not the Mariners. At least it never ran until today, thanks to Scott’s generous offer to guest post on his blog.

But the next time you are shooting a sporting event, take some time to watch it for a few minutes and see what you can execute on your first frame. You might be surprised.

And if you are covering a game with Giza, pop two pieces of bubble gum into your mouth and casually mention how much you enjoy today’s popular music, or how good network TV really is.

Then put the bubble gum in your ears and shoot your very best game ever. Maybe he won’t embarrass you too bad.

See more of David’s work on Flickr, and show him some love by visiting his incredibly popular blog, Strobist.